GIESBRECHT: The numbers just don’t support the narrative of abusive priests

Western Standard [Calgary, AB, Canada]

October 14, 2023

By Brian Giesbrecht

A 97-year-old woman is being charged with sexual offences that allegedly occurred more than 50 years ago at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, where she worked as a nun. 

Similarly, last year a 92-year-old a former priest was charged in Manitoba with indecent assault for an incident that was alleged to have happened more than 50 years ago at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba.

He was the only person charged after a decade-long RCMP investigation into claims of abuse at the school — one of the most expensive RCMP investigations in the history of the province.

Are these charges being laid now to buttress the narrative many priests and nuns were abusers? Is that narrative true?

The complete list of every person convicted of any crime that occurred at all of the approximately 143 residential schools and hostels that operated between 1883 and 1996 (when the last residential school closed) is found in Appendix 3 of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

That list is revealing.

With all the stories about sexually abusing priests, for example, one would expect that list to be very long. One would expect to find hundreds, or even thousands, of priests convicted of sexual crimes. In fact, there is only one priest and one Christian lay brother on that entire list for the 100+ years that the schools operated.

And with the many stories of brutality by the nuns who worked at the Roman Catholic residential schools, one would expect to find a long list of convicted nuns. In fact there are only two nuns on that list (both indigenous.) They were convicted of being too aggressive when administering cod liver, or feeding the students.

So, a total of one priest, one Christian lay brother and two indigenous nuns appear to be the total number of Catholic priests and nuns convicted of criminal offences over the course of well over one hundred years at all of the 143 or so residential schools that operated in Canada. 

And there were only a few dozen other convictions on that complete Appendix 3 list. They were mainly indigenous and non-indigenous dormitory workers, maintenance people etc. The best known name on that list is Arthur Plint. 

It wasn’t for lack of trying to find offenders that the list is so short.

As mentioned, that Manitoba RCMP investigation was one of the most expensive RCMP investigations in Manitoba’s history. It yielded exactly one charge — that bewildered 92 year old. Similarly, the St. Anne’s investigation was also lengthy, thorough and very expensive. Although sensational claims were made — including the charge, later debunked, that children were electrocuted in an electric chair — a handful of minor charges were the result.

This is not to excuse any adult who victimized a student. They are criminals. The people who were abused deserve every cent of the compensation they received.

However, the many stories told of large numbers of priests and teachers sexually assaulting children do not hold up to scrutiny. The small list of convicted staff members in Appendix 3 disproves those grandiose claims.

In fact, that story is just as false as the myth that there are 215, or even thousands, of secretly buried missing children from residential schools. 

But getting back to the 97-year-old nun and 92-year-old priest, exactly what is going on in our justice system?

Extremely elderly people charged with a “he said, she said” half-century-old charge is not something that would happen in ordinary circumstances. Is it only because the assaults were alleged to have taken place in residential schools that these charges are being laid?

Does “reconciliation” now demand that the full force of the law be brought down on 97-year-olds in nursing homes? How can these very old people even be expected to defend themselves against such ancient charges, much less understand what is happening to them?

The 92-year-old man was acquitted. 

The 97 year old woman will probably be acquitted as well. In fact, the cynical people who laid this charge almost certainly know that. But is this something we now do in Canada in the name of “reconciliation”? Is this not unconscionable elder abuse?

To sum up this point, it is clear the bulk of the sexual abuse that happened at residential schools cannot be blamed on priests and nuns. In fact, if you want to take a look at information that is more representative of how the priests and nuns actually taught and cared for indigenous children please read “Our Dear Children,” also from the Dorchester Review.

However, it is equally clear from the testimonies of thousands of former residential school students who testified before the TRC that much sexual abuse did in fact happen.

So, who did the abusing?

Jim Miller, lead historian for the TRC, (Miller, Shingwaulk’s Vision, p.423-4) and TRC Commissioners Marie Wilson and Murray Sinclair give us the answer. It was mainly student on student sexual abuse that occurred at residential schools — older students sexually abusing younger students.

This phenomenon was also revealed at the MMIGW Inquiry origins of lateral violence in aboriginal communities.

It is unfortunate TRC Commissioners Sinclair and Wilson chose not to examine the phenomenon of student on student sexual abuse in any detail until after the TRC report was released. Much of the confusion around the issue could have been avoided had the TRC done so..

If they had done so they would have found many of the residential school students came from highly dysfunctional homes and communities, where alcohol abuse had severely damaged normal family dynamics. Sexual abuse within such homes and communities is extremely common.

It is a tragic fact entire indigenous communities fell victim to alcohol abuse, particularly from the 1950s on. Dysfunction was the norm on many reserves. 

It was children from those homes who entered residential schools and abused others. This is the type of student on student sexual abuse that Phil Fontaine appeared to speak of in his famous CBC interview with Barbra Frum in 1990 that initiated the entire residential school investigation.

Fontaine appeared to be deeply ashamed of the fact he had been sexually abused, and even more ashamed he then became an abuser. That would be the dynamic at play with many of the other student abusers. (Under pressure, he later changed his authentic version to the expected “a priest abused me” story.)

It is only unfortunate the TRC chose not to conduct a thorough examination of this important subject and the largely unexamined area of the use of residential schools as placements for children badly damaged by parental neglect due to alcohol abuse.

It was probably the introduction of those traumatized children into residential schools that largely explains the rampant student on student sexual abuse that took place there. It is only to be hoped that at some future time this important subject receives the attention it deserves.

In the meantime, there are probably hundreds of people who sexually abused younger students still alive today. None of their names are found in Appendix 3, because none of them have ever been criminally charged.

Instead, police roam through nursing homes looking for culprits. Have we come to a point where the demands of “reconciliation” require us to abuse our elders?